Born to build

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am

Li Chung Pei can't quite recall the exact moment that he wanted to become an architect, following in the footsteps of his famous father, I.M. Pei. But he does remember a childhood in which he was frequently exposed to art, tagging along with his father on trips to Europe, spending time in cathedrals and museums.

'[Architecture] was never something that my parents, my father in particular, prescribed for me,' he says. 'It came about through my own curiosity and being immersed in that environment for so long.'

He didn't even take his first design courses until his sophomore year at Harvard University, and in which he fared well enough to become a teaching assistant there for a couple of years. His professor encouraged his burgeoning interest in architecture, writing him a letter of recommendation that helped secure a place for Pei in the Graduate School of Design for his master's degree in the subject.

Some 35 years later, Pei now runs the New York-based Pei Partnership Architects firm with his brother, Chien Chung, one of three siblings and the only other one practising architecture. Li Chung Pei has worked on more than 36 projects worldwide - including labs, museums, cultural centres and luxury apartment buildings.

In Macau, he has been behind the House of Dancing Water, a purpose-built theatre, and the Macao Science Center. He has also completed the Beijing headquarters of the world's largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and is now working on a huge development in Wuxi.

He started his own business in 1992, and still speaks of his father - the founding partner of architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed and Partners - with a veneration bordering on awe.

Two years ago, US-born, Chinese-speaking Pei - who is also known as Sandi - and his father co-designed his first luxury condominium building from scratch, the Centurion in Manhattan - a prime property on 56th Street off Fifth Avenue. The elder Pei, now 94, is mostly retired but collaborated with his son on The Centurion.

'It was a real challenge to try and enter this market, a residential building in New York. So I wanted it to be a distinctive one, where I could apply my own signature,' he says, referring to modern classicism, which defines his look.

The aesthetic of it fit in with his sensibilities, which he describes as 'clean, classic, well-detailed, well-proportioned'. He was able to use Chamesson limestone imported from the Burgundy region of France, each beige block veined in brown and each slab set by hand into the exterior. It was an unconventional choice for the facade of a building in bustling mid-town - the stone has been used on the exterior of the Louvre, as well as stately buildings in the United Arab Emirates. He speaks of the stone as if were an exquisite piece of couture fabric, saying that it weathers well, looks beautiful in sunlight, is full of crisp forms, sharp profiles and beautiful shadows.

Pei says the fact the building is only 18 storeys, compared with the usual 50 or 60, gave him a little more leeway. 'New York City has some of the most beautiful and memorable and enduring buildings that really belong to the early to mid-20th-century modernist, classical period,' he says. 'Row houses and town houses, particularly, are known for their fine craftsmanship, the use of materials, their classicism. Because this is a relatively small building, I had the inspiration to draw from some of these precedents and could employ the aesthetic and the language that fit this building.'

He wanted to build it so that, standing on the street and looking up, there is a visual sweep from bottom to top, a continuity punctuated by large, double-height windows that give the building a face and exposure to the views.

The Centurion is about 60 per cent sold, with Chinese buyers being among owners.

This ability to bring something individual to each project is a talent that Pei says was honed during his early years working for his father, which he says 'was like [being at] a university, you learn so much'.

'My father was very supportive and never dictated what we should do. When he found out I was going to do this, was trying to set my own course in architecture, he encouraged me to join his office, just for one summer.'

That one summer became 16 years. 'I was stuck, drawn in. I started to build friendships and I really enjoyed it, so I thought, 'I may as well stay here.''

While there, he worked on the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, the Louvre's glass pyramid in Paris, the CAA building in Beverly Hills and a facility at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that catered to the disciplines of holography, electronic music and experimental photography.

'Working in my father's office was not only coveted by many people because of the quality of work and interesting projects, but because of the skill of the people who work there. As a post-graduate [student], there were very few places that could be that stimulating and challenging, where people were of such a high calibre. There, I really began to understand how buildings should be built, about the care and quality that should go into them.'

Pei and his team are now in the early stages of a large development in Wuxi - some 430,000 square metres (about 25 New York city blocks) of luxury residential towers, a performing arts building, theatres, a medical library, museum and hotels. Part of the site is being landscaped to make it a model urban park. He is waiting approval before work on some buildings can begin, and hopes to have at least a few completed in three or four years.

As a result of the project, Pei is in China about 10 times a year, where he's also worked on projects such as a large BMW showroom in Beijing, a sustainable building and other luxury residential towers. He has also worked in his ancestral home of Suzhou.

Like other notable architects and designers working together, Pei agrees that the new watchword is sustainability. 'It's very important,' he says. 'We're seeing that we have limited resources, so we have to be very careful how we build our buildings so they do not continue to consume vast amounts of energy.'

Pei views his field as one that is more than just about constructing places in which to live, work or be entertained. 'Our skills are not just to be designers, but also, in a way, to engage in cultural diplomacy, to work in different kinds of communities and cultural contexts.

'We have a chance to be cultural diplomats. We can bring our experience, training and know-how to countries that have not experienced that level of skill, and help to build those countries. In China, we're seeing young architects being trained abroad and returning to shape their own communities. There's a lot of cross-pollination, which is very interesting. I've travelled extensively, but would like to work anywhere. I am by nature very curious. I'd like to continue working in different cultures, if I can contribute something.'